March is Women’s History Month, and this month I plan to post about women writers of folklore and the fantastic. Since I like to actually share stories by these authors whenever possible, I will be presenting mostly older writers who have work in the public domain. I will also try to highlight women writers who are perhaps less well known, at least to English language audiences. My goal is to cover some interesting women writers that you may not have read before. Hopefully, you’ll find new avenues of reading to explore!
Today, I’m highlighting Fernán Caballero, the pen name of the Spanish novelist and folklorist Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber. Böhl de Faber was born in Switzerland in 1796 to a Swiss father and an Andalusian mother. Her father moved the family to Andalusia when she was about 17. Although I am highlighting her today for her collection of literary fairy tales, as a writer she is best known for her 1849 novel La gaviota (The Seagull). La gaviota is both an early example of the Spanish costumbrismo literary movement and a precursor to the Spanish realist novel. The novel was instantly successful at the time of its publication, and was translated into most European languages.
Böhl de Faber was also a friend and correspondent of Washington Irving; they met in late 1828, before she began her career as a writer. It’s known that she related folktales and anecdotes to him, some of which perhaps made their way into Irving’s 1832 Tales of the Alhambra. She also apparently shared with him early versions of her novel La Familia de Alvareda (eventually published 1849); there was even a literary tradition, possibly apocryphal, that Irving encouraged Böhl de Faber to publish.
In addition to her novels, Caballero collected, retold, and published tales from Andalucian folklore. These were eventually compiled into Caballero’s 1859 folklore collection Cuentos y Poesias Populares Andaluces (Popular Andalucian Stories and Poetry).
Caballero’s literary retellings of the stories she gathered are quite witty, full of humorous dialog and little pokes and jabs at the society of her time. They can be a bit moralistic at times, but I think they’re still a fun and enjoyable read. I shared one of her stories, “The Devil’s Mother-in-Law,” as a winter tale some years back; today I’m sharing another story from Cuentos y Poesias Populares Andaluces: “Juan Holgado and Death”.
Like “The Devil’s Mother-in-Law,” “Juan Holgado” is an example of the Aarne-Thompson type 332: Godfather Death. Or in this case, Godmother Death. It starts out feeling like a classic Jack/John/Juan tale, but unlike most of his fellow Jacks and Johns, this Juan isn’t too bright. Luckily, his wife is smarter than he is. And so is Death.
- You can read “Juan Holgado and Death” here (at Ephemera).
- My previous post about Fernán Caballero, with a link to “The Devil’s Mother-in-Law” is here.
- If you read Spanish, you can find Cuentos y Poesias Populares Andaluces at the Internet Archive, here.
- The Online Books Page has links to The Bird of Truth, and Other Fairy Tales, an 1883 English translation of some stories from Cuentos y Poesias Populares Andaluces.
Williams, Stanley T. “Washington Irving and Fernán Caballero,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol 29, No 3 (July 1930). (JSTOR link)